For the novelty of it, I had agreed to work construction for a day with my brother Neil. I was kneeling on a roof, driving a nail into a piece of plywood, but after each hit, the nail went crooked and fell out. I began to get discouraged. Neil, standing nearby, instructed me to “pound harder.” So I did, but I still couldn’t drive it straight. My shoulders collapsed, and I wriggled in babyish frustration. Neil took two steps toward me, kissed me directly below my right ear, and knocked the nail in with one swing. And I thought, I want a man like that.
It had only been in the last year that I’d started noticing my brother. Before that, he’d been just a fact, a sibling with a name and an age. Up on that roof, I stared at him, spellbound, as he pushed a shovel underneath some shingles and pried them up. He moved close to the roof’s edge but continued working, unperturbed. I admired his striking blue eyes, like our mom’s, and the tiny wrinkles underneath. What I felt wasn’t sexual, although it was close.
While I was in this spellbound state, Neil snatched my water bottle and flung it off the roof. It bounced twice on the lawn below and rolled down a slope.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
Neil shrugged his shoulders. He had broken the spell (on purpose?) and become my annoying younger brother again.
Later that day, while playing basketball with Neil, I had an amazing vision: We had sex, and he got me pregnant. Our baby was the Second Coming. (I am susceptible to biblical prophecy and prone to delusions of grandeur.) “Neil,” I told him, “if you weren’t my brother, I’d be all over you.” He laughed and punched me.
I went to an employment agency last week. In the office, a woman of about forty was being interviewed. “This sure is a long process,” she said in a loud voice. “If I could just get in there and prove myself . . .” I imagined she both resented and felt grateful toward the agency.
The woman conducting the interview was in her twenties and dressed in a suit, high heels, and sheer black nylons. Her hair was cut to her shoulders and didn’t move. Leaving the applicant to fill out some paperwork, she approached me with oppressive cheer and said, “Hi, I’m Cathy. Do you have your résumé?”
“No,” I replied. “I forgot it.”
“That’s OK,” she said, and pointed to a couple of chairs. “Why don’t you have a seat, and I’ll be right back.”
Five minutes later, Cathy returned and handed me six forms, including a W-4 — the third one I’ve filled out this year. I wrote down my name and Social Security number, and suddenly I was exhausted. I can’t do this, I thought.
Despite the facts — no money, no income, bills piling up — I still couldn’t bear to work. I believed that I was immune; I lived inside a blessed bubble, and everything I touched would turn out OK. I didn’t want to file, answer phones, and sit in front of a computer. I don’t have to, I told myself. I won’t.
I set my pen down and walked over to Cathy. “Tell me again,” I said, “what kind of work is available through this agency?”
Cathy recited a short list: industrial, light industrial, clerical, and administrative. I didn’t know what any of those words meant exactly. I’d run into the same problem reading the classifieds. On paper, “journeyman” looked good, like maybe there was some traveling involved. It conjured images of old westerns or the pony express. Then I found out a journeyman is someone who has learned a skill or a trade.
Wouldn’t it be great if journeymen traveled, bookkeepers protected the written word, and a typesetter were a kind of dog that could read?
When I was twelve, I ate a chicken dinner every Sunday with my family. At the table, my dad often said, “What people want is for their children to grow up to be productive members of society.” I am not convinced this should be my goal.
As a child, Neil collected paper. Not baseball cards or stamps or comic books, but paper. He did not discriminate between junk mail and a letter from a friend, headlines of historical significance and the classifieds, stationery and scrap paper. If it was from a tree, it was worth saving. Over a two-year period, he filled his dresser, desk, and night stand with his collection. My mother tried gently to convince him that things were valuable only if they were scarce, but he didn’t pay her any attention and went right on pocketing gum wrappers.
The paper collecting came to a quick halt when I told him it was a fire hazard and he was going to kill us all if he didn’t start getting rid of it. Mom, secretly grateful for my cruelty, set a Saturday-morning date to go through it. “You can keep one drawer,” she told him.
The fateful morning came, and the three of us sat on Neil’s bedroom floor and tried to organize the paper into piles. It was like trying to figure out what part of a deceased relative’s wardrobe to keep and what to give to a thrift store. Mom and I were at a loss to separate the valuable from the worthless. Neil was just as torn. He kept rearranging the stacks until, finally, he scooped up an armful and stuffed it into a drawer. Mom and I gleefully trashed the rest.
Neil hasn’t changed. At twenty-three, he continues to use the same backpack he had in seventh grade. He kept only one binder all through college, raided computer labs for used (on one side) paper, and cut out the fronts of cereal boxes to make notebooks. At the grocery store, he won’t accept a free sample in a paper cup. He recycles everything that can’t be used again. His philosophy is that any time you have too much, someone else doesn’t have enough. For him, anything is too much. He used to take showers quarterly and live in a van on an organic farm. All of his T-shirts support some leftist political cause, often the homeless. “A guy who doesn’t shower and lives in a van is homeless,” I once told him. Neil replied that any time you act out of compassion, you come up against yourself.
On a bike ride through Boulder, Colorado, I tell Neil I’m depressed. “I feel like human beings are a virus,” I say, “spreading and killing everything in our path. Even things I love are bad: sugar means exploited laborers; coffee-to-go means a wasted paper cup; books mean dead trees. Every day I live equals a hundred small deaths. I saw a bumper sticker yesterday that said, ‘Save the world. Kill yourself.’ ”
Neil smiles and waits for me to drop my apocalyptic mood. I am expressionless. Finally, he says, “So you really think we’re a virus? Could this have anything to do with the episode of The X-Files we just watched?”
“Maybe a little, but I was thinking about it before.”
Truth is, these thoughts are making me crazy. I start to think maybe I really am a virus, and I should just kill myself. I think of all suicides as saints and revolutionaries. My heroes are Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf.
“We don’t have to kill the earth in order to live,” Neil tells me. “We are part of the world. Our existence is not irreconcilable with the life of the planet — or at least it doesn’t have to be.”
I don’t believe him, but I’m glad he has hope. The day my brother loses hope will be the day the world ends.
We ride through a field, and Neil says, “Whoa, look at that.” I turn around. The sun is setting over the mountains in majestic hues of pink, purple, and gray. We get off our bikes and lean together against a wooden fence, watching the day come to an end.
“That’s what we live for,” Neil says.
Looking at the glow of the sunset, even I feel uplifted. After all, a virus doesn’t love the world it is killing.